Back Goldfinch looking backwards

The central doctrine of materialism is that matter is the only reality. Therefore consciousness ought not to exist. Materialism’s biggest problem is that consciousness does exist. You are conscious now. The main opposing theory, dualism, accepts the reality of consciousness, but has no convincing explanation for its interaction with the body and the brain. Dualist-materialist arguments have gone on for centuries. In this chapter I suggest how we can move forward from this sterile opposition.

Scientific materialism arose historically as a rejection of mechanistic dualism, which defined matter as unconscious and souls as immaterial, as I discuss below. One important motive for this rejection was the elimination of souls and God. In short, materialists treated subjective experience as irrelevant; dualists accepted the reality of experience but were unable to explain how minds affect brains.

The materialist philosopher Daniel Dennett wrote a book called Consciousness Explained (1991) in which he tried to explain away consciousness by arguing that subjective experience is illusory. He was forced to this conclusion because he rejected dualism as a matter of principle:

I adopt the apparently dogmatic rule that dualism is to be avoided at all costs. It is not that I think I can give a knock-down proof that dualism, in all its forms, is false or incoherent, but that, given the way that dualism wallows in mystery, accepting dualism is giving up [his italics]. 1

The dogmatism of Dennett’s rule is not merely apparent: the rule is dogmatic. By “giving up” and “wallowing in mystery,” I suppose he means giving up science and reason and relapsing into religion and superstition. Materialism “at all costs” demands the denial of the reality of our own minds and personal experiences— including those of Daniel Dennett himself, although by putting forward arguments he hopes will be persuasive, he seems to make an exception for himself and for those who read his book.

Francis Crick devoted decades of his life to trying to explain consciousness mechanistically. He frankly admitted that the materialist theory was an “astonishing hypothesis” that flew in the face of common sense: “ ‘ You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”  Presumably Crick included himself in this description, although he must have felt that there was more to his argument than the automatic activity of nerve cells.

One of the motives of materialists is to support an anti-religious worldview. Francis Crick was a militant atheist, as is Daniel Dennett. On the other hand, one of the traditional motives of dualists is to support the possibility of the soul’s survival. If the human soul is immaterial, it may exist after bodily death.

Scientific orthodoxy has not always been materialist. The founders of mechanistic science in the seventeenth century were dualistic Christians. They downgraded matter, making it totally inanimate and mechanical, and at the same time upgraded human minds, making them completely different from unconscious matter. By creating an unbridgeable gulf between the two, they thought they were strengthening the argument for the human soul and its immortality, as well as increasing the separation between humans and other animals.

This mechanistic dualism is often called Cartesian dualism, after Descartes (Des Cartes). It saw the human mind as essentially immaterial and disembodied, and bodies as machines made of unconscious matter. 3 In practice, most people take a dualist view for granted, as long as they are not called upon to defend it. Almost everyone assumes that we have some degree of free will, and are responsible for our actions. Our educational and legal systems are based on this belief. And we experience ourselves as conscious beings, with some degree of free choice. Even to discuss consciousness presupposes that we are conscious ourselves. Nevertheless, since the 1920s, most leading scientists and philosophers in the English-speaking world have been materialists, in spite of all the problems this doctrine creates.

Sheldrake, Rupert (2012-09-04). Science Set Free: 10 Paths to New Discovery (pp. 109-111). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

The following is an excerpt from Rupert Sheldrake’s The Science Delusion.